Essential Japanese Grammar Review

Ok, the last book Tuttle Publishing sent me for review is Essential Japanese Grammar: A Comprehensive Guide to Contemporary Usage so let’s dig into it.


According to the book’s Preface, this book is “intended to be a thorough grammar reference and self-study guide for language learners who wish to study Japanese seriously or refresh their understanding of the language”. It’s split into two major parts, the first being an overview of Japanese grammar while the second goes into a more detailed look into the usage of particular words.

Part one

The first part goes over various aspects of Japanese grammar. For example, it goes over Accents, then goes over Adjectival Nouns, followed by Adjectives, and so on and so forth. The information is pretty solid though it does tend to use a lot of grammar terminology such as “Sentence-conjunctional words”. It has lots of example sentences and is generally understandable once you wade through the linguistics jargon. I especially like that they cover accents and accurately describe word order. Many books about Japanese incorrectly describe Japanese sentence order as SOV. This book doesn’t fall into that trap and gives a good explanation.

In general, the information in this book is detailed and doesn’t try to “baby you” like other books do by using only romaji and ignoring the dictionary form. My only complaint about this section is that it’s organized like a dictionary, not an overview. The topics are arranged in alphabetical order and feels disjointed if you read it from beginning to end. For example, it covers “Honorofics” before “Verbs” only because well “h” comes before “v” but it certainly isn’t the order you want to learn them! Really, you should look at the table of contents first and choose a topic that interests you instead of reading it in order.

Part two

Part two is simply a dictionary of various grammatical phrases such as 「らしい」 or 「つもりだ」. Honestly, the two parts do not mesh together AT ALL. For example, the first part has a completely unhelpful two-page section on “Requests” that says here are some ways to make requests with some examples. It doesn’t have any explanation on when to use 「くれる」、「もらう」、 and 「あげる」. Then the second section starts by describing 「あげる」 (because it starts with an “a”) and has a note “(→ See kureru and morau.)” Essentially, the topic of requests is completely broken up into 4 sections scattered throughout the book.

Yet another example is the section on “Comparisons” in part one with notes to see 「方」 and 「どちら」 in part two. In general, this book is filled with these “(→ See XYZ)” notes which force you to flip around the book to even learn about a single topic.


Overall, the actual information in this book is very thorough and informative. Unlike the other two books Tuttle sent me for review, this book isn’t made up of mostly filler material as each page has lots of information and examples. However, I find that this book has a kind of identity crisis. The grammar topics are covered in alphabetical order and overlapping topics are split between parts one and two. In my opinion, this book should have either stuck with being a grammar reference such as “A dictionary of basic Japanese grammar” or focused on comprehensively covering each aspect of Japanese grammar.

What purpose does this book serve? I think if you are already using something else to learn Japanese and you want to learn a bit more information about a certain topic, you can’t go wrong with this book. If you can get past the linguistic mumbo-jumbo, the explanations are pretty detailed with plenty of examples. However, you may have to skip around a bit between part one and two. For example, take a look at how the book describes 「なら」.

Nara can directly follow (adjectival) nouns (with particles), but it also follows a clause followed by no or n. (→ See nara for more details.)

The authors are very knowledgeable but I think they took the wrong approach in organizing this book. If you want a detailed and a bit technical reference guide to Japanese grammar, this book is not bad. It’s certainly a great book if you want to learn about grammatical terms such as “Conjunctional particle for clauses”. Perhaps you’re a Japanese linguistics major. In conclusion, I think there’s lots of great information here, it just needs to be organized better. The preface claims it’s a “thorough grammar reference and self-study guide”. It might be a grammar reference but it’s definitely NOT a self-study guide and I think it hurts the reference part by trying to be both.

Who needs grammar? We all do.

This guy says don’t study grammar and I obviously disagree. 🙂

So you’re supposed to hear things until you can naturally tell what sounds right and what’s wrong and not study grammar at all. This is bad advice unless you live in Japan or speak/hear Japanese everyday with someone willing to correct everything you say. As with most things in real life, the correct solution is to use a balanced and practical approach.

The problem with anecdotes is that someone can always come up different ones to make an argument. Ok, you’ve met people who have studied grammar and still can’t speak the language, well, I have met people who haven’t studied grammar and still can’t speak the language. It proves nothing. For instance, my dad has lived in the United States for as long as I have and his English is still broken and a grammatical mess. He has listened to English naturally for over 30 years, day in and day out, and he can do anything he wants in English whether it’s conversation, filing taxes, or starting a small business. But he hasn’t studied a lick of grammar and his English still sucks.

Heck, I’ve lived in the US since elementary school and they still taught me grammar in school. I learned things like subject-verb agreement, double negatives, and how to avoid run-ons and sentence fragments. you needs to learn these stuffs; so we don’t sounds like no dummy.

The fact of the matter is, grammar is one tool of many in your arsenal that you would be foolish to ignore completely. You shouldn’t be thinking about grammar when you’re talking but it is a stepping stone or guideline you can use to reach the point where you don’t need it. If you only learn with phrases, you need to be exposed to every type of grammar, verb conjugation, and vocabulary usage to internalize it naturally. This is fine for learning your native language as a child but it will take far too long for adults seeking second+ language proficiency, especially in a non-immersive environment. Grammar can help you systematically organize the language such that you can learn entirely new words, phrases, and sentences and quickly incorporate them using the same rules that apply for all words without having to encounter them over and over again. The rules themselves are simply a means to an end, not the end result.

Grammar can also help you break down sentences you don’t understand and provide guidelines on how to structure your own sentences. I’ve often met people who know all the vocabulary they need to say something but still can’t figure out how to organize them into a sentence to express what they want to say.

Of course, you need to do lots of listening and speaking practice but I don’t see why that precludes you from learning grammar and applying it as needed. Eventually, with enough practice, you won’t need to think about the grammar anymore but until then, it can help you figure out how to say what you want. Sure, it may be slow, but it’s better than not being able to say anything at all. Japanese classes often spend TOO much time on grammar with very little actual conversation practice. That’s obviously a problem but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn ANY grammar.

When words collide

Minako has a great post about the difference between 「べき」 and 「はず」:

I’ve been meaning to write about this in a post sitting in my draft folder since early 2008. Oops. But now you can read about it and get some reading practice at the same time. Like she says, the only reason English speakers have a reason to confuse the two is because they happen to translate to the same word in English: “should”. But that word itself has many different meanings so it’s yet another example of why you should avoid translating to English as much as possible.

Formal Suggestions

I would add that 「べき」 is a fairly formal phrase to use when making suggestions. So you normally wouldn’t use it to suggest eating more vegetables, for example. In a conversational setting, you should stick with 「~方がいい」. In English, it’s more formal to say “it’s better to…” as compared to “you should…” but it’s the exact opposite for Japanese.

Awkward: 野菜をもっと食べるべきだ。
Conversational: 野菜をもっと食べた方がいいよ。

A bit of uncertainty

I would also add that 「はず」 is not always used with absolute certainty. In English, people often say “supposed to” to try to avoid accountability and 「はず」 can be used the same way.

A:Huh? No word from Tanaka-san?

B:That’s right. Even though (he/she) was supposed to contact (me) by yesterday.

Explaining the explaining の

Here’s how I typically explain the explanatory 「の」 when I teach it to my students.

Question: I don’t understand the difference between the two:
1. 今日は授業があります。
2. 今日は授業があるんです

I fire back with another question: How would you say, “Isn’t there class today?”

「今日は授業がありませんか?」 simply means “Is there no class today?”

“Isn’t there class today?” sounds like the speaker is expecting to have class today and is surprised that that may not be the case. That’s what we call seeking an explanation, which requires using 「の」.

So the answer is:

The simple answer to such a question would be:

Similarly, 「今日は授業があるんです。」 is saying that there is class today as an explanation for something. For example, maybe you want to explain why you can’t go to lunch.

A-san: 昼ごはんを一緒に食べませんか?
B-san: すみません、今日は授業があるんです

It helps to figure out the difference by looking at a situation where you have to use 「の」 to say something. There is no way to say things like, “Isn’t there class today?” without using 「の」.

I’m soooo boring! Hee hee *snort*

I know there’s still many of you out there that still feels uncomfortable about the difference between the 「は」 and 「が」 particle. You might have even read my first post which covered this very topic. Maybe my explanation didn’t “vibe” with you (translation: something’s wrong with you), so let me give you a more concrete example. Ignore the parentheses, I really don’t know where they come from. I think it’s a secret WordPress plugin.

I’m going to be revisit the two particles with the following story.

While chatting over dinner at a restaurant with fellow exchange students and some Japanese students, one of the exchange students exclaimed,

「私はつまらない~! \(*^o^)/」

We all had a good laugh because it seemed like she was saying she was boring.

If you’re reading this K, I don’t mean to insult you in anyway. Honestly, it’s the kind of mistake we’ve all made in the past. So exactly what was wrong with what she said? Doesn’t 「私はつまらない」 mean “I’m bored”? If not, how can you say “I’m bored” without insulting yourself?

The topic: direct relation=0%, implied=100%

The answer will probably blow away some of you new to this language. 「私はつまらない」 can mean either, “I’m bored” OR “I’m boring” or more accurately, 「私は」 gives us no information on which interpretation is correct.

The 「は」 topic particle only tells us the general topic of the conversation and has no direct connection to the rest of the sentence. All it says is, “this is what I’m going to talk about” and doesn’t explicitly specify its relation to the rest of the sentence.

私はつまらない~! – As for me, boring!

As you can see from the translation, saying 「私はつまらない」 without any context is highly suggestive of your incredibly boring and dull personality. If there was additional context, you might be able to pull it off such as the next example.

A) みんな、楽しんでいるよね? – Everybody’s having fun, right?
B) 私は、つまらないよ。 – As for me, boring.

Here, you can make the argument that you’re saying you’re bored because the question just asked was whether everybody was having fun. Another example is when you make it very clear that the role of 「つまらない」 is completely unrelated to you.

A) この映画は面白いの? – Is this movie interesting?
B) 私は、つまらないと思う。 – As for me, think (the movie) is boring.

The identifier: it’s this one

So if the topic particle doesn’t really seem to work, what if we use the 「が」 particle instead? The 「が」 particle doesn’t specify whether you’re boring or bored either. It just identifies you as the one that is 「つまらない」. Whether that means boring or bored is kind of pretty much up to the interpretation of the listener.

A) 私がつまらない。 – I’m the one that is boring/bored.
B) ?

B would be pretty puzzled because A is identifying herself as the one that is boring or bored and B didn’t know they were trying to find the one that was boring/bored. The only context in which 「が」 would make sense here is if you were trying to identify the one that was boring/bored, in other words, answering the question, “which is the one that is bored/boring?”

A) 誰がつまらない? – Who is the one that is bored/boring?
B) 私がつまらないよ。 – I’m the one that is bored/boring.

If you do a google search on “私がつまらない”, you’ll get a small number of results because this kind of situation is pretty contrived. So 「が」 doesn’t really work for our purposes.


In general, unless you want to make a distinction between your own opinion versus other people around you, you should generally avoid using 「私は」 at all. The ambiguity of topic’s role in the sentence makes using 「私は」 and 「つまらない」 together a dangerous combination.

「私が」 doesn’t really work either because it identifies you as the one that is boring or bored among all the people who are potentially bored/boring. The only context in which it would make sense is if you knew somebody was boring/bored and you were trying to figure out which one among a group of people was the boring/bored one. It’s not a very likely scenario, which probably means you’re not using 「が」 correctly.

It is important to remember that people generally will assume you’re talking about yourself unless you say otherwise. So for the most part, you don’t have to say 「私」 with either particle. People learning Japanese often get so catch up with the contrived differences between 「は」 and 「が」, they often forget the option of using neither. So to conclude, in the original story, I would probably suggest to K to say something along the lines of the following instead next time.

「なんかつまんない~! \(*^o^)/」

Mastering the art of chain conjugation

I’ve noticed a particularly difficult part of learning Japanese is getting used to multiple layers of conjugation, which is all too common in Japanese. It’s not just enough to get really good at quickly doing all the different types of conjugations, you have to be able to do several simultaneously and instantly recognize the same during conversations.

A confusing example would be something like: 「それ、よくなくない?」 meaning “Isn’t that not good?” If you want to be facetious, you can keep going such as, 「よくなくなくない」、「よくなくなくなくない」、 and so on.

I don’t know of any good tools or books that address this skill so I suggested to my students to just practice some common (and perhaps not so common) combination with various nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

For example, a very common scenario would be various conjugations for the 「たい」 and potential forms. Common expressions include things like “I can’t go”, “I didn’t want to say this”, “I couldn’t do anything”, etc. There’s a whole host of other combination you can play with for practice.

Try the following chain conjugations with random verb and adjective phrases. They are ordered roughly by difficulty. The goal is to to be able to do it instinctively and almost instantaneously with little to no cognitive processes.

I can’t [Verb]

  1. I didn’t want to [Verb].
  2. He/she/it doesn’t seem very [Adjective].
  3. I couldn’t [Verb] for him/her.
  4. You may not have to [Verb].
  5. You didn’t even try to [Verb].
  6. It looks like he/she didn’t [Verb].
  7. If you don’t want to [Verb], you don’t have to [Verb].
  8. I was told that I must try to [Verb].
  9. I didn’t want to be made to [Verb].
  10. I think it’s better that you don’t [Verb] too much.
  11. Even if you didn’t want to [Verb], there’s a nicer way to refuse, isn’t there?
  12. If you suppose the he/she always does too much [Verb], there’s no way he/she didn’t do [Verb] today.

Are there any chain conjugation you found particularly useful or challenging?

Scroll down for some sample answers. Make sure you give it a try yourself before you look, though!

  1. したくなかった。
  2. あまり優しくなさそう。
  3. 買ってあげられなかった
  4. 行かなくてもいいかもしれない。
  5. 書こうともしなかった。
  6. 来なかったみたいだ。
  7. 見たくなければ、見なくてもいいよ。
  8. やらなくてはならないと言われた。
  9. 飲まさせられたくなかったんだよ。
  10. 食べ過ぎない方がいいと思う。
  11. 行きたくなかったとしても、もっと親切な断り方があるでしょう?
  12. いつも飲み過ぎるとしたら、今日は飲まなかったわけがない。


The #1 Chinese myth

Every time I mention how I struggle with Chinese grammar, people inevitably say something like:

Isn’t Chinese grammar similar to English?

Here’s my answer:

No, not really.

Hey, since you know a whole bunch of Kanji from Japanese, and you speak English, learning Chinese should be a snap, right?

No, not really.

To illustrate, here’s a sentence I ran into during some light reading.

你想把他带到什么地方去?- Where do you think you’re taking him?

If you assume that the grammar is similar to English and translate the words literally, you get something like this:

You think (direct object) him, take where go?

Wow, that doesn’t look like very good English, does it? I mean there’s a verb at the end and something similar the 「を」 particle! But it’s not like Japanese either, since the main verb isn’t “go” but “think”. It’s Chinese sentence structure, which so far I’ve managed to break down into the following rules.

Rules for Chinese sentence structure

  1. Order the words so that it “sounds” natural depending on what words you’re using.

In fact, I’ve given up in trying to break things down logically. My current method of learning essentially boils down to behavioral training and osmosis. It works but it’s not something you can really teach or explain. “Hey, just go with it” doesn’t sound very good. 🙂

The essence of sentence construction

During my lessons, when the person doesn’t know how to phrase certain things in Japanese, I try to break it down for them. In the process, I’ve found that there are some very key elements and concepts that form the core of basic sentence construction. While obviously, you can’t be breaking down sentences while you’re conversing, I still think it’s a great training exercise to start getting your sentences into shape so that you can eventually skip the whole process and go straight to clean and nicely formed sentences.

Let’s look at some sentences that at first may appear complex but is really just an application of the same basic principles when broken down.

1. What kind of food do you think he likes to eat?

2. Can you tell me the name of the Greek restaurant you went to last week?

3. Exercising a lot is fine but taking adequate rest is also important.

While it is usually a gross oversimplification that causes more confusions and misconceptions, the idea that Japanese is “backwards” is true in the fact that the core/focus of your sentence always comes at the end and it’s always a verb (either an actual verb or a state-of-being).

So if you want to break a sentence down, the first thing you should ask is:

What is the main verb?

1. What kind of food do you think he likes to eat?

2. Can you tell me the name of the Greek restaurant you went to last week?

3. Exercising a lot is fine but resting properly is also important.

In sentence 2, “tell” means more than just saying something but rather to teach someone something new. This is 「教える」 in Japanese. In sentence 3, you have two main verbs because it is a simple compound sentence with “but” being the conjunction. So our sentences should look like this:

1. 思う?
2. 教える?
3. いいが、大切。

Using 「と」 with relative clauses

One major part of sentence structuring is using 「と」 as a quotation particle to attach a verb to whole sentences.

More details:

This is especially useful for things that need to be phrased such as thoughts and things said or heard.

Let’s take a look at the first sentence in more depth.

1. What kind of food do you think he likes to eat?

In this sentence, the thought is phrased as a sentence so you can break out the quoted sentence as:

“What kind of food does he like”と思う?

So let’s break down the relative clause as a separate sentence. What’s the main verb?

What kind of food does he like?

We’ll need to add a declarative 「だ」 here for the 「と」 quotation particle since 「好き」 is a na-adjective so we have:


Now, we’ve finally gotten to the details of sentence. What likes is the question asking about? It’s “What kind of food” and it’s seeking to identify an unknown so it should use the 「が」 particle.

“What kind of food”好きだと思う?

Now, we just have to convert the object in question (food = 食べ物) and the question word (what kind = どんな).


Based on the context, you may or may not need to specify the topic. In most cases, you won’t but it’s easy enough to add.


Directly modifying a noun with a verb clause

Another major piece is the ability to attach a verb phrase directly to a noun, treating it just like an adjective. A textbook example would be a sentence such as, “The man wearing the yellow hat.”

More details:

We’re going to need this for the second sentence.

2. Can you tell me the name of the Greek restaurant you went to last week?

If you already know how to make requests (, you know all you have to do is add 「くれる」 or 「もらう」 to the te-form of the main verb)


The rest is simply specifying what you want to be told: the name of the Greek restaurant.


The tricky part is the “the Greek restaurant that you went to last week” part of the sentence. Essentially, you have a relative clause, which is its own verb phrase, directly modifying the Greek restaurant. So we can take it out and break down the main verb of that clause.

Went to last week.

So the whole clause becomes:


Now, all you have to do is directly modify the noun “Greek restaurant” with the whole clause, and you’re done!


Treating verb phrases as nouns

This leads to the final major piece, which is being able to treat verb phrases as nouns. This allows us to use adjectives and other useful parts of speech including other verbs with whole verb phrases. The basic textbook example being, “I like to do [X].”

3. Exercising a lot is fine but taking adequate rest is also important.

In the third sentence, we want to say exercising is good and resting is important. If we try to simply treat the verb “exercise” and “rest” as nouns, we run into some issues since you can’t attach particles directly to verbs (putting aside, special expressions such as 「するがいい」).


Now, in the previous example, we already learned that we can directly modify a noun with any verb phrase. So, all we need to add in the missing piece to link the adjective is any generic noun: 「こと」 and 「もの」! In this case, since exercising and resting aren’t physical objects but an event, we’ll want to use 「こと」.


Another option which always works is… the nominalizer (, of course!


We’re essentially done, we just have to sprinkle in the adverbs which can go almost anywhere as long as they go before the verb they apply to.


Finally, let’s add a bit of motherly advice-sounding nuance to it and give it a more conversation style, since it sounds like the speaker is trying to admonish the listener.


If you don’t want to sound girly, you’ll want to add 「だ」 when using 「よ」 with nouns/na-adjectives.



If applicable, politeness always goes last. All that remains is to take the last verb (or verbs in compound sentences) and conjugate to the proper polite form. I often mention that you will usually never know the politeness level of a sentence until you reach the end of the sentence. So you shouldn’t worry about it until you’re all done and finished with everything else.



Now, one important assumption in breaking down sentences in this fashion is that you know the appropriate phrasing and vocabulary. But that’s just something you’ll have to learn by reading and increasing your vocabulary. If you find that you know all the parts but have trouble piecing them together to form sentences, these tactics may help you out.

Usually, I recommend trying not to think in English at all but for beginners, there’s really no choice since that’s the only language they’re familiar with. I hope the ability to break down and convert sentences, while slow and impractical for conversation, will at least serve as a nice stepping stone so that you can get used to thinking straight in Japanese.

Good luck!

Some sample sentences for the reader’s exercise:

1. He always says he’ll be on time but he’s always at least 10 minutes late!
2. Could you ask that man wearing the yellow coat to please not smoke?
3. Studying every day is boring but I think my grades will get better as a result.

When to use (and not use) grammar

I’m a huge believer in using grammar as a tool for understanding and learning how to speak Japanese. So much so that I built a whole website about it. However, when I ran across a list of Korean irregular verbs while going through Google Reader, I began to wonder whether grammar is always a useful tool.

The list contains only 10 verbs, not nearly as many as I remember from my horrible experiences in High School Spanish. Still, that’s far more than the 2 in Japanese and the author mentions that he will continue to add to the list as time allows.

Speaking of Spanish, I shudder when I think back to memorizing all the various verb tenses in singular/plural and 1st/2nd/3rd person for each irregular verb. When I see a page that lists 200 common (not all!) irregular verbs, I can only think that learning grammar here becomes more of an hindrance than an aid.

Thankfully, Japanese grammar is simple and consistent enough to become a powerful tool for learning how to easily handle any arbitrary verb or adjective. But it’s good to keep in mind that it’s only a tool nonetheless. I think there’s a fuzzy line where too many exceptions, rules, and inconsistencies can render grammar a rather cumbersome and limited tool for the learner.

English and Spanish, I would say easily crosses that line. Personally, I’ve never used Pimsleur but there’s an argument to be made for learning how people say things without really understanding how the grammar works for some languages (not Japanese). After all, native speakers usually don’t know all the grammar rules for their language. They just know what sounds right from experience.

However, Korean grammar is kind of between Japanese and English in terms of complexity. There’s an excellent website called Luke Park’s Guide to Korean Grammar, which has slowly grown into a very nice resource. However, when I see 5 rules just to get the present informal tense when Japanese has none, I think, “Japanese is awesome!” and “Wow, Korean looks hard!”


II. Plain Form → Present Tense (Spoken)

● Rules

1. For verbs with ㅏ/ㅓ and no final consonant, just take 다 off.
Exceptions: A verb with 하 as a final letter, 하 changes to 해.

2. For verbs with ㅗ/ㅜ and no final consonant, add ㅏ for ㅗ verbs and ㅓ for ㅜ verbs.

3. For a verb with 르 as a final letter, add ㄹ to a letter before 르 and 르 changes to 라 for ㅏ/ㅗ verbs and 러 for ㅓ/ㅜ/ㅣ verbs.

4. For a verb with l and no final consonant, change ㅣto 여.

5. For a verb with a final consonant, first take 다 off then add 아 for ㅏ/ㅗ verbs, and 어 for ㅓ/ㅜ verbs.

Since the rules are based on phonetic vowel sounds, maybe it’s better to just wing it and let your ears and listening practice do the work instead of your brain. I’d be interested in hearing people’s experiences in learning Korean.

The opposite of polite… rude? Not really.

As most of you know, Japanese has a separate way of speaking to show politeness. This way of speaking is called 「敬語」 as a whole and is split into two levels: 1) Polite – 丁寧語, and 2) Honorific/Humble – 尊敬語/謙譲語. However, I’ve never really seen a neat term to describe the non-polite way of speaking in English or Japanese. Some might think that the opposite of polite is rude but the level I’m looking for is between the two. Slang is a little different too. What I’m referring to is a neutral way of speaking with equals. I’ve usually just called it “casual” or “dictionary form”. However, 「普通の話し方」 is rather unwieldy and 「辞書形」 is a term for conjugation, not a politeness level. I’m not aware of any formal term in Japanese which is a pain when making Japanese lessons so I looked up 「丁寧語の反対」 in Google and found my exact question on Yahoo!知恵袋. Say what you want about Yahoo and it’s past blunders with Microsoft but Yahoo Answers is really cool and turns up useful answers all the time.

I’ve decided to use the term 「タメ口」 based on this rather confident answer.


Any native speakers have any reservations with that term? Here’s a list of terms I tried to sort in order of politeness. Any additions, suggestions, or corrections appreciated.


By the way, I hope to use a screen sharing app during my lessons to show how to do this type of research using Japanese and the internet on your own.